Nick and Nora Charles are staying for Christmas in New York, when Dorothy Wynant, who remembers Nick from when he used to be a detective, introduces herself and asks Nick if he knows where her father, Claude, is. Since he and her mother divorced, Dorothy has lost touch with him. Nick suggests she contact Wynant’s lawyer, Herbert Macaulay, who maintains that he hasn’t seen his “screwy” client since October.
Soon after Charles arranges to have lunch with Macaulay, Wynant surfaces, but then news emerges of the murder of Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf. Was she killed by her gangster boyfriend? Or does Wynant have something to do with it? A tough called Morelli holds up Nick and Nora in their hotel room, and Dorothy Wynant appears and disappears according to her own whim.
Much against his initial inclination, Nick is brought into the case – who killed Julia Wolf, and why? And where is Wynant, since he never seems to be seen by anyone, but sends wires and letters from all sorts of places?
This is an interesting example of the hard-boiled, wise-cracking detective novel: Nick and Nora are free to do what they like (Nora has money), and so Nick is free to indulge his curiosity. The husband and wife (and most of the other characters) drink like it’s going out of fashion, frequenting speakeasies and nightclubs, but they’re kind, particularly Nora, offering Dorothy a place to stay while she’s at outs with her mother, Mimi. Nora’s tougher than the average girl, at least when it comes to her husband, but she’s sensitive enough to worry about Dorothy. Nick is much more cynical (understandably, since he’s fifteen years older than his wife, who’s twenty-six), and takes being shot with a quip and a stoic grimace – as well as several shots of whisky.
Hammett’s prose is entertaining and fast-moving:
Nora was saying: ‘He made me let him in, Nick. He said he had to –’
‘I got to talk to you,’ the man with the gun said. ‘That’s all, but I got to do that.’ His voice was low and rasping.
I had blinked myself awake by then. I looked at Nora. She was excited, but apparently not frightened: she might have been watching a horse she had a bet on coming down the stretch with a nose lead.
The clues are all there, though Hammett is deft at disguising them, and the solution is not unexpected. I think that it’s the atmosphere which contributes to the enjoyment of this book, though – Nick and Nora’s banter, the easy lives of the relatively well-off on their holidays, and yet with a background of violence and menace. It’s as far away from our modern lives as Agatha Christie’s country house murder mysteries, but is equally fun to read.
This was made into a film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and was followed by several sequels, but unlike the very faithful film adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, is not nearly like Hammett’s original, possibly because of the drinking. And, like in Raymond Chandler’s novels, half the pleasure of reading them is not for the plots, but the way Hammett describes things or people.